“We Get More and More Inside the Stage”: An Interview With Robert Glasper

Ahead of Robert Glasper's Blue Note residency, Lara Gamble catches up with him on early inspirations, iconic collaborations and what's next.
By    October 21, 2021
Photo via Mancy Gant

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Since the early 2000s, Robert Glasper has demolished preconceived ideas about jazz musicians. He’s amassed a body or work that fuses the genre’s signature syncopated rhythms with sultry R&B melodies and hip-hop swagger. While growing up in Houston, his mother would sing in church on Sundays before heading to gigs several nights a week with her young son in tow, providing him with an early introduction to jazz and the blues. Glasper would go on to attend Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts under program director Robert “Doc” Morgan and later studied at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music where he met several other like-minded musicians, including his longtime collaborator and friend, neo-soul singer Bilal Oliver.

Since the release of his debut album Mood (2004), Glasper has established himself as a renaissance man in an industry where it’s become increasingly difficult to discover innovative compositions. There are four Grammy wins: Best R&B Album for Black Radio (2012), Best Traditional R&B Performance for his version of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America (2014), Best Compilation Soundtrack for Miles Ahead (2016), and Best R&B Song for “Better Than I Imagined” featuring H.E.R. and Meshell Ndegeocello (2020). He’s collaborated with everyone’s favorite artists, from Stevie Wonder to Herbie Hancock and Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def). And he’s led multiple gender-bending collectives, most of which are known for their unique jazz, R&B, and hip-hop fusion sound, Glasper has also composed original music for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13th, for which he took home his first Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics in 2017, and 2020’s romantic dramedy The Photograph.

This month, he’s back for another month-long residency (33 nights, 66 shows) at the Blue Note Jazz Club in NYC. These show runs, which have affectionately become known simply as “Robtober,” will feature an all-star list of special guests, most of which have already been announced. But it’s not a real Robert Glasper show without some surprises. (I was disappointed I didn’t have a ticket to his first show where Q-Tip made an appearance on stage.) And for those unable to make it out, he’s partnered with On Air to offer two live stream performances, one of which already took place on October 8, but fans can still purchase tickets to the next one on October 29.

In an interview from 2020, Glasper shared, “When I think of a crossover, I think of basketball. A real crossover only works when you know that the person with the basketball can actually dribble equally with both hands. He can go left or go right.” And he is able to do so effortlessly in his compositions every time, usually on the first take. I spoke with Glasper the day his residency kicked off at the Blue Note to learn more about how he initially found success as a jazz piano virtuoso but is now just as prominent in hip-hop and R&B circles. – Lara Gamble

What is your earliest memory of hip-hop?

Robert Glasper: My earliest memory of hip-hop would be learning Bushwick Bill’s verse to “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” I’m from Houston, so the Houston group is the Geto Boys with Scarface. But I remember me and my friends learning that rhyme, so we could actually say it together on Halloween because that song was made for Halloween. The video is about Halloween time in Houston, and I was in elementary school when it came out. So, that’s my first recollection of like, “Oh, I love this song.” And I learned it. I learned the verse: “This year Halloween fell on a weekend / Me and geto boyz are trick-or-treatin / Robbin little kids for bags.” Oh, and this he passed away. R.I.P. to Bushwick Bill. But I got to hang out with him when I was in college at a strip club. It was amazing.

That is amazing.

Robert Glasper: I was walking into a strip club in Houston. I came home for the week and whatever, and I was walking into a strip club, and he was walking in, too, at the same time. And I look down and was like, “Yo, Bushwick Bill! What’s up?” And he was like, “Yo, how you doing?”

If that’s not serendipitous….

Robert Glasper: No, I know, exactly. So, I was like, “Man, I would love to buy you a drink.” He was like, “Cool.” So, we went to the bar, and I bought him a drink, and we got to talk for a few minutes.

What are a few records you recall connecting with as a child growing up in Houston?

Robert Glasper: As far as hip hop goes?

Anything that you think might have made an impression on you.

Robert Glasper: Anything that made the impression on me? Oh, wow, that’s a lot of different records. Kirk Franklin and the Family, Billy Joel’s album called Storm Front. Chick Corea, Akoustic Band: Live. Oh my, so many albums. Songs in the Key of Life. Off the Wall, Michael Jackson. That’s the only record that I actually read the liner notes over and over. When I was in third grade, I discovered that album at my aunt’s house, and whenever I was over there, I used to go into her record room and unfold the Off the Wall album and lay on the ground and listen to it back and forth, the whole album, while reading the liner notes in third grade.

Early reading material?

Robert Glasper: Absolutely. Also, Luther Vandross’s first album, Never Too Much. My dad used to play that over and over and over again in the house, for sure. And Anita Baker’s album, Giving You the Best That I Got. The songs, actually, “Giving You the Best That I Got” and “A House Is Not a Home,” specifically, were songs that—the acoustic piano in those songs resonated with me and made me really want to play piano. Those two specific songs, actually.

And then fast forward, I got a chance to work with Anita Baker. This is like, I don’t know, maybe like six or seven years ago. Her son was going to Berklee, and he was a huge fan of mine. He was telling his mom about me, and me and Anita Baker were on the same label. She ended up being on Blue Note for a little bit. So, she was working on her Blue Note record, which never came out. But we ended up in the studio together, and I told her I was like, “Yo, ‘Giving You the Best That I Got’ is one of your earlier songs I can remember that made me want to play piano.” So, I got a chance to tell her that, which was awesome.

When did the Robert Glasper Experiment come together?

Robert Glasper: Our first show was in 2006. I already had my trio because the first Trio album on Blue Note came out in 2005. So, I was already playing a lot of shows with my piano trio. But then I connected with some of my friends, Chris Dave and Casey Benjamin. Chris Dave is from Houston, the drummer, and Casey Benjamin, we went to college together. And I was like, “I want to start another group.” I wanted to start using things that have kind of more hip-hop influence, more words, you know? Just something that could reach the people a little bit further because with a piano trio, you can only go so far. I was like, “I want to reach further.”

So, I started this group. I would secretly do shows in New York. It had to be under the radar. I was doing under the radar shows because I was signed to Blue Note already, and I had gigs at certain places already booked, like at the Blue Note or the Village Vanguard, with my trio. So, technically, I can’t have another gig in the city. So, I would do them at dive bars and have it under a random name. And we were going there just to be able to do that, so we could play together. That started in 2006.

The group’s debut album, Black Radio, dropped in early 2012. Do you remember how you felt when you learned the record entered the jazz chart at number one and went on to win a Grammy for Best R&B album?

Robert Glasper: The jazz chart I expected because, not to sound funny, but I always hit number one on jazz charts whenever I do a jazz record. So, I was like, “Okay, got it.” So, I expected that. What I did not expect was to get nominated for R&B Album of the Year. I didn’t expect that at all. But the thing is, I have to make the choice because at the Grammys, you make the choice of what category you want your album to be. A lot of people don’t know that. You make the choice. You check the box.

So, a lot of people, including my label, were against me putting it in the R&B category. They wanted to put it in the jazz category. And then I was like, “No, this album is hitting.” And I’m on the street, you know, I’m seeing the people. And a lot of times when you do a deal with a record label, they’re not on the streets. They’re just business. They’re like, “Hey, you’re a jazz artist, put it in the jazz category.”

But I saw the transformation it was making really in the world in R&B and hip-hop. So, I was like, “No, I think we have a chance here in R&B/Hip-Hop. I’d rather that.” So, I chose to check that box. And then it just so happened we got nominated. So, in my mind, I’m like, “Wow, we got nominated for R&B album. I’m good with that.” Nowhere in my wildest dreams did I think we were actually going to win. You know, especially when we’re going up against…I feel like we went up against Robin Thicke. It was some heavy hitters. It was heavy hitters in the category. It wasn’t something wack, you know what I mean? And in my mind, I’m like, “We’re never going to win.” So, winning, it just it blew my mind.

It blew everyone’s mind. And I felt like when I won, all of us won, all the musicians, all the independent artists, all the people who are trying to be true to their own music and real music and music with real instruments. You know, I won for them. And, so it was it was amazing, absolutely amazing.

And that must have been a huge turning point in your career, too.

Robert Glasper: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. From that day on, my life was different.

So, were you at all surprised when your cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America,” featuring Lalah Hathaway and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, was also awarded a Grammy the following year for best traditional R&B performance?

Robert Glasper: Yes. If you know, I’m not a fan of second and third and fourth and fifth takes when I go into the studio. I’m really a one take person. I don’t like to waste my energy or my mind or my artistic juice just to do extra takes. You know what I mean? If it’s that bad, then OK. But if we do it good the first time, and I’m cool with it because to me, the spirit’s there.

So, when we went into the studio to do that song, Lalah did that, and we recorded that in one take. One time. One time down, that’s all. And Malcolm-Jamal Warner, he wasn’t even supposed to be on it. I originally wanted my friend Jimmy Greene to do a poem because his daughter, Anna, was killed in the Sandy Hook school shootings. That’s why I did that song. It was a really a tribute to Anna and Jimmy and his whole family and all the families and children from the Sandy Hook tragedy. That’s why I did that song. Because the first time I ever did that song, I did it live, and it happened to be the same day as the Sandy Hook tragedy. I literally was doing a Stevie Wonder tribute that same night.

So, when I woke up, I saw that on the news, and our first time doing it was that same night. That’s why I was like, “You know what? I have to record this now. I have to go in the studio, and I have to record this and make it a thing.” But when I reached out to Jimmy, it was just bad timing for him to write a poem for his daughter. It was just super bad timing emotionally and all these things.

Malcolm-Jamal Warner happened to be in the studio with me just hanging out because he just wanted to hang out. And he said, “Robert, you know I’m a poet.” I was like, “I knew that, but I don’t think of you like that. I forgot. You know, you’re Theo.”

I was going to say, Theo’s a poet?

Robert Glasper: He’s a poet. He’s really done poetry for years. Apparently, he told me he was doing poetry during the same time he was acting as a kid. He’s been doing poetry for a long time. So, he was like, “Bro, let me take a crack at it. You don’t have to use if you don’t like it.” And he took a piece of paper and a pen, and I gave him my iPod, and he went upstairs in the studio and came down in one hour with that poem. And then, boom. Everything is very in the moment for me. I love letting the universe do what it needs to do.

I can appreciate that. How did you come to work with Kendrick Lamar on what would some call his masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly, which was released in 2015?

Robert Glasper: I came to work with Kendrick through my friend Terrace Martin. Terrace Martin is one of Kendrick’s main producers on all of his albums, and he’s a childhood friend of mine. We went to jazz camp together when we were fifteen years old. So, when Kendrick’s album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City came out, that was my favorite album at the time. It’s still one of my favorite hip-hop albums of all time.

And I told Terrace, “Dude, next album you do, please get me on it, bro. Whatever, however. I just want to be on the next album, whatever that is.” And that’s what happened. He called me to play on one song, but Kendrick was there, and he was so impressed with my playing, I ended up playing on nine songs.

I mean, I’d expect nothing less. Was Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic your first experience with writing original music in a feature film?

Robert Glasper: Yes, it was my very first time writing original music in a feature film. And he hit me on Twitter. That’s how it happened. Don Cheadle hit me on Twitter. He was like, “Yeah, I love your In My Element Trio album.” And I hit him back. I said, “You’re Don Cheadle.” And I checked, and it was really him.

We talked for a little bit, and then we went to DMs, and then we exchanged numbers. And he was like, “Hey, man, I’m actually doing this Miles Davis film. I already checked with the gatekeepers. I checked with Herbie. I checked with Miles Davis’s nephew and his estate, and they all said you’re the one to do this. And I was like, “Oh, wow, that’s amazing.” So, that’s really how it happened. That was my first time ever composing for a film.

The following year, you, Common, and Karriem Riggins won an Emmy for your song “Letter To The Free” from Ava DuVernay’s documentary film 13th. Had August Greene already come together at that time, even though I know the announcement didn’t come until later?

Robert Glasper: No, so me and Karriem and Common were already producing Common records before August Greene. Karriem has been with Common for years. I’ve known Common for years. I used to give him piano lessons in 1999. When I first moved to New York, my friend Bilal was like, “Hey, my boy Common, he’s a rapper.” I didn’t know who he was. “My boy, Common. He’s a rapper. He lives down the street. He really wants piano lessons. He saw you play with me, and he wants to know if you teach.” And I was like, “Alright, cool.”

I started walking up the street because at the time I lived in Brooklyn, and me and Erykah Badu and Common lived literally within five blocks from each other. So, I used to go over to Erykah’s house. She used to come over to mine with Common. I knew who Erykah was. I didn’t know Common. But anyway, after going over his house, obviously I found out, and then I really knew.

I started working with Common in a real way on his Black America Again album. And that one was fully, pretty much, produced by me and Karriem Riggins. He loved being in the studio with me and Karriem so much, and he was like, “Yo, man, we should do a group.” And I was like, “Bet.” So, we did a group and called it August Greene. And Common kind of had that name already in his pocket for something else. He was like, “I just love that name. I don’t know why. Let’s call it August Greene.” I was like, “Alright, I’m down.”

You also put together a project called “R+R=Now” with Christian Scott, Terrace Martin, Derrick Hodge, Taylor McFerrin, and Justin Tyson during that same period. How are you able to apply the same level of energy and focus to each commitment, on top of everything else you likely had going on at the time?

Robert Glasper: Because I love it. Nothing I choose to do is something I don’t want to do. You know what I mean? I think a lot of times they feed each other. I use a lot of guys on my other projects anyway, so it becomes kind of one big ass project in a way. I try not to get entangled with things I don’t feel I don’t genuinely really love when I can help it for the most part.

And spend your energy on.

Robert Glasper: Yeah, I don’t want to put my energy in those places because, you know, I have kids and touring and doing my own albums. So, anything extra, I don’t want to do if it doesn’t really feed my creativity and my love for the music. And I love all these guys that are in my band. That band came about kind of by accident because I was doing a show at South by Southwest. They asked me to put together a band that I’ve never put together before and do something totally different.

Like a supergroup kind of thing?

Robert Glasper: Yup. They said, “Hey, put a supergroup together that you’ve never put together before, and we’re going to stream it live on Facebook and all over the place.” And I was like, “OK.” And that was the group. And that literally was the group. But I had also like two singers. I had Bilal as a singer, and maybe I had a rapper or something, but the core band was the band. And that was it.

So, once we did that one show, I was like, “Yeah, we need to go in the studio.” We literally went to the studio and wrote…all the songs you hear were written in the studio. And we were there for like three or four days, and we wrote them all in the studio. So, it was very much a gumbo. Everybody brought their thing. And we put it together, and it was really cool. No egos. A bunch of talent, no egos.

Your song “Better Than I Imagined” with H.E.R. and Michelle Ndegeocello secured what I believe was your fourth Grammy win for “Best R&B Song” at this year’s awards. Can you share any updates on the release of your highly anticipated album, Black Radio 3?

Robert Glasper: Yeah, we’re going to release it early next year. Still trying to figure out an actual date. But we’re definitely going to release it early next year, possibly February. I can’t talk about the guests yet because the ink hasn’t dried and stuff like that. So, you know, legally, I can’t do that, but I’m very excited. This was the first time I had to do an album remotely, not being in the studio with people.

I got a chance to be in the studio with H.E.R., and the H.E.R. thing happened by chance, too. It’s the universe. I scored this movie called The Photograph, and we were at the premiere in New York, and H.E.R., she did the last song in the movie, the title song. And I scored it.

Mind you, I met H.E.R. when she was 13. She was like, “Black Radio is my favorite album.” She was 13. And so, after the movie, she turned around and she’s like, “That score inspired me so much. What are you doing right now? Let’s go to the studio. I said, “I’m not doing anything. Let’s go.” And we literally went to the studio that night and came out with “Better Than I Imagined.”

Wow. That’s amazing.

Robert Glasper: Think about it. If we were sitting in two different places, that probably wouldn’t have happened because she got out quick. She got out very fast. Boom. All the people and stuff, she didn’t want to deal with all that. If I would have been sitting in a different place, that song might not have happened.

So, it was that kind of thing. But I’m sorry. I digress. I don’t even remember what your question was.

You answered it. I’m very much the same. I like to live my life by fate. Like, if this is happening for a reason, I’m going to let it happen.

Robert Glasper: Exactly. Yeah. Even if it looks bad in the moment.

In just over a week, you and the Robert Glasper Electric Trio will be joined by Burniss Travis, Justin Tyson, and DJ Jahi Sundance for a visually immersive live stream, presented in partnership with On Air. How does your preparation for a live virtual performance differ from in person shows?

Robert Glasper: It doesn’t differ really. We have our pre-show hang in the dressing room. That always gets me where I need to be. We have a few drinks. We talk it out. We don’t talk about music. We talk about other things. We never talk about the set and stuff like that, really. Right before we go on, I’ll be like, “Let’s try this song.” Something that.

We just talk and listen to music and just kick it, you know, and that literally puts me in the vibe I need to be in. And that’s the same thing that happens live. Literally the same thing. As long as I get an hour right before the show just to hang and unwind and get in the vibe, then I’m cool. There’s no real mystery to that. Sorry. [Laughs]

The second of your two global livestream performances will take place on Friday, October 29 and will feature your long-time collaborator, co-producer, and creative partner Terrace Martin, as well as Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. What inspired you to title the stream Dinner Party after 2020’s crossover album from you, Martin, 9th Wonder, and Kamasi Washington?

Robert Glasper: I wanted it to be something that people felt invited to, like they could be a part of it. And that’s what happens when you have a dinner party. People can just come and bring stuff. So, the original Dinner Party, if you listen to the album, there’s not much going on. Not a lot of words, just like a chorus, not a lot of verses. It’s pretty much an album you can put on while you’re doing something, and it’s a vibe.

It’s more music than words, and I feel like I invite people to put their own words or put their own thoughts through the music. And that’s what you do when you have a dinner party. You invite people, and they come, and they bring whatever. And they just enjoy. So yeah, that was the thought behind the name.

How do you think the addition of the 4K UHD resolution and Dolby Atmos sound will amplify your performance and enhance the experience for listeners across the globe?

Robert Glasper: I feel like every few years, we get more and more inside the stage. The listening experience really makes you feel like you’re in it versus like you’re watching it. Or the press is like, “You’re listening to it.” It makes you feel like maybe you have an instrument. You’d be all, “Am I in the band?” [Laughs]

So, I think it just heightens the overall experience that makes you feel like when you do that, it will resonate even deeper inside of you. It really does make you feel like you’re part of the experience versus watching the experience.

You will also be returning to the Blue Note Jazz Club for a 33-night, 66-show residency, which will kick off later this week and run into early November. How will this run differ from your sold-out show back in June, which served as the club’s first ticketed event since March 2020?

Robert Glasper: It’s going be the same thing. There will just be four more weeks. [Laughs] But the difference is, in June, I had one band the whole week. I’m here now. My first show is tonight. During the residency. I have one band on Tuesday and Wednesday and a different band Thursday through Sunday, I do that every week. A different band, different special guest. So, Tuesday, Wednesday, one band. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, a whole different band. So, it’s just that there’s more in and out. There’s more colors in the spectrum here than it was in June because that was just one kind of thing.

But June was a good workout for me because I haven’t done back-to-back shows like that in a very long time. There’s two shows a night, you know? And it felt like more than a week. It was one week, but it felt like more because that week, we had a lot of people falling in and out. They kind of came through to hang out, jump on stage, so it felt like longer than a week. And I was like, “Okay, woo. That was a good workout for me.”

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